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After nearly three hours of public testimony, an extended staff presentation and well over an hour of explanations and discussions, the county board voted unanimously, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, to allow the county manager to purchase the Thomas Building, at 2020 N. 14th St. in the Courthouse neighborhood, through eminent domain if necessary.
The board and staff members said the county needs the building for offices currently in the Court Square West building (a block away) and planned “staging” use as the county moves and shuffles offices. As well, the purchase of the building fits in with the site plan for the neighborhood.
But what brought a standing-room-only crowd to the board meeting was not office space, but the “Comprehensive Homeless Services Center” proposed for the building. It would replace the current Emergency Winter Shelter about a block away.
“There are going to have to be ways to move the pieces [various government offices and departments] around the board a little bit,” Chair Chris Zimmerman said, especially since the county’s lease on the building that houses the main offices at 2100 N. Clarendon Blvd. comes due in 2018.
“I believe this to be a strategic investment for the county for a number of reasons,” Vice Chair Mary Hynes said, echoing the sentiments of other members.
The building, assessed at $25.5 million and built in 1966, will cost tens of millions to purchase and renovate. It will need an added stairwell to meet safety codes for residential structures and larger elevators to come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, county staff said.
The second and third floors will be transformed into the Comprehensive Homeless Services Center, a 50-bed facility open year round, all day and night. It will expand to 75 beds during the winter and will have a few private rooms for residents to convalesce after a stay in the hospital, Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier said.
With that plan, came more than 50 speakers last night. The use of the building as a homeless shelter was the focus of the night.
The pro-shelter forces spoke on the need for a year-round facility that will not just get people off the streets during the winter months but will give them the constant supervision and care they need to stay off the streets permanently.
But neighbors who spoke at the meeting said that the county was spending too much money to move a shelter from a commercial block to a residential one; that the county did not do “due diligence” in the planning stage to determine the effect on nearby home values or to see how many of the homeless are on the sex offender registry; that the county could not or would not provide crime statistics; or that the county is disregarding the needs of the current office tenants of the building. Most naysayers agreed with the need for the year-round homeless shelter but disagreed on the location.